Enabling smart cities with smart citizens

Smart people, smart cities

Australia is facing into some big challenges – and opportunities – in modernising its public infrastructure and education systems. Features of ‘smart cities’ sit in the solution set to both issues. Yet the realisation of sustainable and smart cities has been painfully slow. What can be done to accelerate change?

A good friend and colleague, David Singleton, has asked me “How can smart cities best support smart citizens?” It’s a good question, and begs another: what makes ‘smart citizens’, what support would they value, and what role can cities play in delivering that support?

It’s clear that Australia has plenty of smart people. We’re a well-educated nation by global standards [1]. And while we do well at invention, we under-perform in its commercialisation and in the ability to attract global talent when competing against European and US cities like Copenhagen, Dublin and San Francisco [2].

State and federal governments have been making useful policy adjustments to support start-ups and entrepreneurialism. But it’s not just business risks and incentives that determine our ability to attract and retain smart people. Australia needs to also educate, engage and accommodate smart people in a modern way, recognising the challenges of geography that are both perceived and real.

Educating smart people

It has been said that if Sir Isaac Newton returned today he wouldn’t recognise the way that we travel or communicate, but he would recognise the mode of teaching in universities. There’s no doubt that our educational institutions have been slow to modernise.

While the global market for education is large, from which Australia has benefited enormously, real threats exist to traditional institutions. Today, information is cheap and ubiquitous. MOOCs (massive open online courses) offer educational alternatives, and employers of professionals are entertaining recruitment of people without formal degrees. Work-ready skills and dispositions (like problem solving and critical thinking) are being valued highly alongside traditional course completion [3]. And educational providers are being judged more by the quality of their online learning experiences than having content online. Progressive universities recognise that they are no longer the unrivalled holders of knowledge, and that students must be treated as customers who’s challenges (like working full-time to pay off their educational ‘mortgage’) must be factored into educational experience design.

Accommodating smart people

Beyond world class education, Australia must offer places where educated people want to live and love to work. Connecting must be easy – via internet and transport – in places offering great amenity, assured security and affordable lifestyles. Work places must be stimulating, achieving effective collaboration across business, government, research and education sectors. And the resulting career opportunities must be local and global. Clearly, we have a way to go.

With our growing population, housing affordability challenges, power security concerns and discretisation of work, the development of smart cities becomes more important but potentially more difficult. It’s clear that many people in Australia and abroad fear being left behind by innovation, the creative classes and educated elite. But the trend to greater value being placed on creative work will increase as automation takes over repeatable, codable tasks.

Growing inclusively

What does this mean for smart cities, where ‘smart’ typically conjures up images of a data-rich and automated built environment? It means that development and technology application must serve social outcomes, fostering opportunity and prosperity in all segments of the community.

It also demands that we clearly articulate the outcomes we want to pursue, exposing and sharing unmet needs, so that we can deliberately design and invest to achieve them. At present we lack a clear, compelling and cohesive narrative for our cities and nation and our place in the ever-shrinking world and global marketplace.

For we must grow, sustainably. Just as businesses can’t cost-cut their way to growth, nor can governments tax a nation to build prosperity. The dominance of these issues in political discourse suggests that our political class are out of touch and out of answers, with the “wrong answers to the wrong questions” [4].

Ignoring smart people with smart ideas?

Yet there are plenty of smart people with smart solutions to issues like our infrastructure deficit and outdated education system that are waiting to be deployed. There have been for many years. So, what’s holding us back? Why is progress so slow, and how can it be accelerated?

I’ve penned numerous responses to this question before, exposing opportunities for more clever and intentional design of infrastructure that users want to pay for and investors want to finance.

But at the heart of these issues are the linked problems of complacency, group-think and smart people doing dumb things. Many of our public and private sector leaders are captured in their own echo-chambers, comforted by years of relative success. There’s not a catalyst strong enough to challenge their own business models and ways of thinking and working. It’s why we have infrastructure bodies around the country that are dominated by financiers, and a federal infrastructure minister setting up yet another finance-dominated agency to “resolve our deficiency in people who know how to create investable projects, bankable projects that can attract capital” [5]. Doh!

A question to cultivate smart cities

So we must look to, encourage and celebrate leadership from the private, community and not-for-profit sectors, alongside those champions within government who achieve change in spite of institutional inertia and policy paralysis. This cannot, however, be progress pursued in silos, for private sector growth (for example) without a social conscience risks compounding the issues of inequity, mistrust and isolation that impede our collective prosperity. Fortunately, there are green shoots; we can look to learn from smart city initiatives in places like Bendigo in Victoria.

Ultimately, it may be inspiring examples and a competitive spirit that drives change and creates the wave for our politicians to ride. Perhaps the question we can examine to fuel inspiration is:

What is the form and function of an urban space where people love to live and work, and where no-one feels left out or left behind?


[1] Williams et al (2017) U21 ranking of national higher education systems 2017, Universitas 21.

[2] INSEAD (2016) The Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2017, Fontainebleau, France.

[3] Deloitte Access Economics (2017) Soft skills for business success, Deakin Co., Melbourne.

[4] Jennifer Hewitt (2017) Wrong answers to the wrong questions, Opinion in Australian Financial Review, 23 July 2017.

[5] Jennifer Hewitt (2017) John O’Neill to steer government’s Infrastructure Project and Financing Agency, Australian Financial Review, 28 June 2017.